Sunday, May 31, 2009

Movie: Cop Hater (1958)

This low-budget adaptation of the first 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain has been parked on my DVR since last October. I promised Matt at Scrubbles a review, so here it is.

Someone is picking off detectives at the 87th, and Steve Carella, here named Carelli and newly engaged to girlfriend Teddy, is leading the investigation. Underrated character actor Gerald S. O’Loughlin is his partner. The story felt a little Law & Order, which makes sense considering how much that warhorse series owes to McBain. But it’s told in gritty, New York in the blast furnace of summer style, building to a dandy twist ending followed by a potent kicker – Carella catching his next case as the credits roll past his weary mug, the grind of police work unceasing. Jerry Orbach, looking like Valley Girl-era Nicolas Cage, owns the joint in his big screen debut. It’s strange to watch Robert Loggia, so young it’s unseemly, as Carella and “Vince” Gardenia in a scene and think, “The pair of yous will have long careers and in thirty years you’ll get Oscar nominations.” Loggia, still going strong, was a special guest at this weekend’s Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs.

Semi-related rant #1: There’s a potent and very real sexual undercurrent running through Cop Hater. Not the typical golden boy/pretty girl vibe of most movies, but an earthier and at times angrier kind. Two bored people sweltering in the same tiny apartment, familiarity breeding contempt breeding arousal, tormenting each other with their availability. I’d like to see more of that. In movies, not in life. I’ve got enough problems.

Movie: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008)

This documentary on Harlan Ellison is on DVD and the Sundance Channel, which is offering additional clips. Harlan, as always, is great copy. And he answers some long-standing questions about The Oscar, the overheated melodrama that he says essentially ended his feature film career. According to Harlan, he wrote it for Steve McQueen and Peter Falk and got Stephen Boyd and Tony Bennett.

Semi-related rant #2: The doc features plenty of clips of Harlan being interviewed by the late Tom Snyder. Who’s booking writers now, other than Craig Ferguson? In an environment with multiple web talk shows in which B-list celebrities talk to C-listers, how come there’s not a quality program highlighting author raconteurs? I could book the first month of shows off the top of my head. Do I have to do everything myself?

Movie: Drag Me To Hell (2009)

I enjoyed every minute of Sam Raimi’s gypsy curse scarefest, from the ‘80s Universal logo to the last ballsy shot. Great fun. Go now.

Semi-related rant #3: Um, actually, I don’t have anything for this one. I’m good.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

DVD: Killshot (2008)

The Elmore Leonard adaptation, on the shelf for years save for a brief theatrical run in Arizona in the wake of Mickey Rourke’s Oscar nod for The Wrestler, finally debuted on video this week. As was the case with another recent film based on the work of a high-profile crime writer, it deserves better.

A feuding Michigan couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) is stalked by a half-Native American hit man (Rourke) and his hair-trigger sidekick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) following an attempted crime. Not even relocation under the auspices of the Witness Security Program can help them.

The plot ambles along in the Leonard style, with a few lapses I found hard to swallow. But the movie is admirably terse and hard-boiled, shot in great gunmetal gray locations. Rourke does some subtle work, and Gordon-Levitt channels Warren Oates. It’s a solid film that’s more interesting than most of what will be in theaters this year.

DVD: Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini’s soundtrack album to the vintage Blake Edwards private eye series is in regular rotation on Rhapsody’s West Coast jazz channel. After listening to it day in and day out, I finally watched the show. And now I’m hooked.

Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, is unlike any other P.I. He doesn’t have an office, instead hanging his hat at a swinging club called Mother’s. He spends most of his time making goo-goo eyes at chanteuse girlfriend Lola Albright. Each episode is a slick noir vignette, packed with prime hipster patois and always with a killer hook. Edwards was a man who knew how to grab the attention.

Mancini’s music figures prominently. And you occasionally glimpse other West Coast jazz legends like Shorty Rogers. The best aspect of the show, hands down, is Herschel Bernardi as Gunn’s police contact Lt. Jacoby. Bernardi, doing more with less than anyone I’ve ever seen, plays the cop as if he’s a thousand years old and has seen it all twice. Pure minimalist genius.

There are 32 episodes on DVD. I’m rationing them out carefully. Edwards made a Peter Gunn film without Albright and Bernardi, cowritten by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, that’s rarely screened and supposedly not very good. I still aim to track it down.

Here’s Art of Noise’s cover of Mancini’s distinctive Gunn theme, featuring surf guitar god Duane Eddy and Rik Mayall as the shamus.

Miscellaneous: The Rooster Crowed At Midnight

China Miéville on the inevitable disappointment of crime novels. As for Miéville’s “only flawless” example of the form, Ray Banks offers both explanation and excerpt. My question: isn’t there an episode of M*A*S*H with the same plot?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Book: The Complete Game, by Ron Darling (2009)

Here’s how much I enjoyed this book. I would recommend it even if it weren’t written by a member of your 1986 World Series champion New York Mets.

Darling, who had a solid journeyman career, revisits nine innings he either pitched himself or observed closely as an Emmy-winning commentator for the Mets, plus an extraordinary bonus from his days at Yale. “Pitchers are considered the non-athletes of the game,” he notes, and as such are often the most isolated players. The book takes you inside their process as they face every conceivable situation – a must-win game, an injury, an inning in which the wheels come off, a session on the hill late in life’s season when the pitcher finds himself wearing a May hat in August. Casual baseball fans will like The Complete Game. Hardcore ones will devour it.

Here’s Ronnie promoting the book with my fellow Mets fan Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Miscellaneous: Shorter San Francisco

Now that I’ve caught my breath, highlights of a trip that was all highlights.

The Mets game went as if I’d scripted it. We got to see one of baseball’s best pitchers, Giants ace and reigning NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, in action on a night when he had strong stuff. But a late offensive explosion spearheaded by Rosemarie favorite David Wright tied the score. The Mets seized the lead in the top of the ninth, so Francisco Rodriguez came in to shut the Giants down. Mets win 8-6.

We stopped in at Bourbon & Branch during San Francisco’s Cocktail Week. The bar had some extraordinary specials, like a Tom Collins variation with applejack instead of gin that included rhubarb syrup and a sprig of rosemary. But it was staples like the Democrat – bourbon, honey, peach liqueur – that hit the spot on a scorcher of a weekend.

We ended up being invited to a wedding officiated by czar of noir Eddie Muller and his lovely wife Kathleen that took place on the day of our anniversary. Who could say no to such romantic symmetry?

As a result, we were able to enjoy a performance by artist, lounge singer and honest-to-God licensed private eye Mr. Lucky. When he heard it was our anniversary, he insisted that we have our picture taken in front of his mint ’61 Chrysler.

Ever the professional, Mr. Lucky set the mood. Henry Mancini’s soundtrack to Touch of Evil is booming out the windows of his sweet ride.

Next, we crashed the Thrillpeddlers closing night party at the Hypnodrome Theater, where we found ourselves having a conversation with Jello Biafra. When he talked about the early days of the California punk scene I almost told him that Henry Rollins once called me presidential, but thought it would be uncool.

All in all, a fantastic weekend full of good friends, good times and good cocktails. Now back to my real life and more quotidian concerns, like bears.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book: Hunt at the Well of Eternity, by James Reasoner (2009)

Odds are a few of you have heard of this book by now. What with the gales of publicity, the starred review in Publishers Weekly, the raves across the blogosphere. High time, I think, for someone to be a contrarian, to throw a little cold water on this enterprise.

That someone ain’t gonna be me.

James Reasoner launches the new adventure series from the people at Hard Case Crime in high style. The tone is perfectly established from the opening pages, when an exotically beautiful woman turns up at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art bearing some strange artifacts for globe-trotting adventurer Gabriel Hunt, and the gala erupts in gunplay. Before long – and I mean that, because I read this book in a flash – Gabriel’s up to his ears in Civil War lore, ruthless Mexican bandits, and, of course, more exotically beautiful women. Additional books are coming from a battery of authors including Christa Faust. I’ll read ‘em all.

Random question #1: Is it me or is Gabriel Hunt in the Glen Orbik cover art above a dead ringer for Rod Taylor?

Random question #2: Does anybody remember the 1986 movie Jake Speed, another cable staple of my youth? Jake’s the hero of pulp paperbacks that turn out to be chronicles of his actual derring-do. I recall a great dyspeptic performance from John Hurt, the vague sense that the movie was crap, and nothing else. Maybe I should rent it.

On The Web: JAFO

Saints be praised, author Terrill Lee Lankford has a blog. Currently it features a long overdue critical reappraisal of Porky’s. It’ll also point you toward part one of Conflict of Interest, an original companion film to Michael Connelly’s upcoming novel The Scarecrow, written by Connelly and directed by TL. Go watch in HD.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

DVD: Recent Release Round-Up

Just Another Love Story (U.S. 2009). I read some rave reviews for this movie when it opened in New York earlier this year and kept an eye out for it. Next time I saw the title, it was on the new release list. Jonas is a Danish crime scene photographer, married with kids. He’s responsible for a car accident and goes to visit the victim in the hospital – where he’s mistaken for the woman’s mysterious boyfriend by her family and eventually the woman herself.

Some classic noir threads are at play here. The disgruntled man led astray, Cornell Woolrich-style mistaken identities. The opening minutes are too cute and self-conscious, but soon the movie settles down and tells its story simply and well. One of the better films of the year so far.

Murder at the Vanities (1934). Director Mitchell Leisen praised himself at the expense of Busby Berkeley in a book I recently read, saying that at least the numbers in this film could be staged in a theater. Because that’s what we’re looking for in a musical – rigorous fidelity to the confines of the proscenium arch.

It is a backstage film, so (minor) point taken. If only the numbers were any good. The best, “Sweet Marihuana,” gets by on the basis of strategic nudity. As a musical comedy lead, Kitty Carlisle is a great game show panelist. Her costar Carl Brisson is one of those European exports that takes America by storm, like bidets, Fiats and socialized medicine. The murder plot is investigated by Victor McLaglen, who delivers every line around a mouthful of corned beef. Dorothy Stickney is fun as a nervous maid, and you do get a little Duke Ellington.

Search for Beauty (1934). Olympic athletes Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino (then a mere sixteen years old, using her native English accent, and wearing scary eyebrows) are hoodwinked by con man Robert Armstrong (King Kong) into fronting a lurid “fitness” magazine. The kids then set up a spa, which Armstrong tries to turn into a brothel. Featuring multiple bare asses of the male variety and a number, “Symphony of Health,” best described as Leni Riefenstahl’s Xanadu.

The latter two films, part of Universal’s new Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, feature fetching ‘30s sexpot Toby Wing and actress Gertrude Michael. A hellraiser who dated pulp novelist Paul Cain and inspired a character in his legendary Fast One, she’s easily the best thing in both movies.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Sort-Of Related: The Couch Trip

Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Doctor. I wanted to – there’s no couch? Only a chair?

No, it’s not a problem, I just expected a couch. Too many New Yorker cartoons, I suppose.

Anyway, Doctor, I’ve had psychiatry on my mind lately and I wanted to talk to someone about it.

How did it start? With High Wall, a film noir from 1947. Robert Taylor plays a veteran who suffers blackouts as a result of an injury sustained in the war. When he comes out of one of them his wife is dead, so he ends up in an institution under the care of Audrey Totter. Unsure if he killed his wife, afraid to find out the truth.

He didn’t do it. That’s one of things I like about the movie, the very elegant way you find out at the start that Herbert Marshall is the killer.

What else did I like? The hospital scenes are good. Honest without being overwrought, like in a lot of nuthouse – sorry, mental hospital films. And I appreciate the role that money plays in the plot, driving a wedge in Taylor’s marriage and indirectly setting up the murder. Very ... adult, I guess you’d say.

You know what’s funny? I saw this movie years ago and didn’t realize it until it was half-over. There’s a scene where Taylor recreates the crime, and as it comes back to him the rest of the movie came back to me. Part of the problem is Robert Taylor. He never leaves much of an impression. When I hear is name all I think of is Sarah Jessica Parker’s outsized enthusiasm for him in Ed Wood. But you’d think I’d remember Audrey Totter ...

No, I don’t care to explain that. Why would – what could I possibly be hiding?

All right. I am hiding something. I’d never seen Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound.

Of course I’m ashamed. I’ve seen all of Hitch’s other big films. And most of the lesser ones. I’ve even seen his two wartime shorts, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, on the big screen, so ...

I don’t understand. Overcompensating for what?

The point is, I finally saw Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s the psychiatrist. Gregory Peck is the new head of her institution, only maybe he’s not. And he’s got mental problems of his own.

Yes, I did like it. It was made during the Hollywood vogue for psychiatry, so it treats the practice a little too much like magic. It’s best known for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Which is dated and somewhat silly, because it contains the solution to a murder in code. But Hitchcock really sells it. The movies he made with David O. Selznick have a swoony, gothic feel like no other. I would have liked more of Rhonda Fleming as a nymphomaniac.

There’s nothing to read into that sentiment, Doctor. I think it’s pretty obvious.

You’re right. There is something further back that triggered all of this.

No, not in my childhood. I meant last month, when I started watching the new season of In Treatment on HBO.

Gabriel Byrne’s the shrink – sorry – and we sit in on four of his appointments a week, then his own session with Dianne Wiest. It’s a brilliant structure. Byrne is the model of rectitude with his patients, but when it’s his turn on the couch – actually, he and Dianne don’t have them, either – he’s petty, judgmental. Human.

I don’t follow every patient. I usually pick one or two. This season it’s Oliver, an overweight boy whose parents are getting divorced. And at the opposite end of the spectrum Walter, a businessman suffering panic attacks. John Mahoney from Frasier plays him, and he’s doing some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on TV. The man breaks my heart every week. Walter’s convinced his problems stem from an ongoing corporate crisis, but over the course of his treatment it becomes apparent that pain he buried sixty years ago is still seeping into his life. Powerful stuff. I never took therapy seriously, but the show illustrates how it can be beneficial for people. Who knows? Maybe even I could get something out of it.

It costs how much per session?

I see our time is up.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Book: Fright, by Cornell Woolrich (1950)

I’m circling back to some Hard Case Crime titles that I missed. No matter when I read this book, I’d have to be talked off a ledge. Fright, published under Woolrich’s pen name George Hopley, is that bleak.

It’s tricky to talk about the plot. A man about to be married has a moment of weakness. That moment comes back to haunt him. Let’s put it another way. Things start out bad. Then they get worse. And when you’re convinced the situation is as grim as it can possibly be, Woolrich kicks you one last time. And knowing that the kick is coming doesn’t help you. Not at all.

The setting, soon after the turn of the last century, is integral to the story, making every twist that much more inevitable. Woolrich’s occasionally overwrought style works wonders here, limning the inner life of a man forever looking over his shoulder and seeing only himself.

Damn. I need a drink just thinking about this one again.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

The latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, trade rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hits the streets today. A donation of any amount gets it delivered to your in-box. Twenty-four pages packed with noir news that’s piping hot and ice cold. Here’s just a sample of what’s inside:

* Guy Maddin lists his five favorite noirs!

* Bertrand Tavernier on the underrated Cry Danger – and details on the film’s restoration courtesy of the FNF!

* Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott on Clash By Night!

* Czar of noir Eddie Muller’s manifesto Noir for a New Century!

* A vintage pin-up of Kim Novak sure to steam up your monitor!

And appearing for the first time in the Sentinel, the byline of ... yours truly.

My debut piece is a tribute to the late Fabián Bielinsky. I look at the pair of extraordinary films made by the man Eddie says “would have been the greatest writer-director of contemporary noir.” Special attention is paid to El Aura, which I call “one of the finest cinematic noirs of this decade.”

The article will run here eventually. Of course, if you can’t wait, go to the Film Noir Foundation and contribute. You’ll get some terrific reading, and you’ll be helping the Foundation in its vital work.

Either way, do yourself a favor and rent El Aura. You’ll thank me later.